Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The Little French Church

My earliest recollection of grade school came from foggy brown-tinted photo plates nestled in the back of my head. They were fleeting images of dark, dank hallways and the smell of old wood, old people and poverty. I remember out back there was an empty lot where someone had planted a vegetable garden. Across the street was the ‘Little Sisters of the Poor’ home for indigent and homeless people. My sister and I were warned never to approach or talk to any of them.

The ancient rundown apartment building where my mother and sister and I lived for several years was located in Irving Park. At one time, Irving Park was ‘the’ prestigious neighborhood for all the new wealth coming out of a bustling Saint Paul. By the late forties, our asphalt shingled six-plex was one of the last vestiges of an old neighborhood that had long since passed its prime.

After World War Two, Irving Park had become the primary dumping ground for DPs (displaced persons) from Europe who migrated up from Chicago and New York. They were housed in tenements scattered about the neighborhood until permanent housing could be found for them.

My mother, newly widowed, worked downtown as a short order cook in the First National Bank building. As a devout Catholic, St Louis Catholic Grade School probably seemed like the natural fit for her kids. As a single parent, I’m guessing she got a cut on the tuition.

Known among the locals as the “Little French Church,” the Church of Saint Louis, King of France has been an integral part of downtown Saint Paul for more than 125 years. It was created specifically to serve the French-speaking citizens of Saint Paul and was one of the national parishes to be established by Archbishop Ireland in 1868.

Parishioners entering St. Louis church (photo credit to Minnesota Historical Society)

I don’t remember much about first or second grade when my sister and I walked to St. Louis Catholic Grade School each day. By third grade our mother had built a home in Highland Park, a half hour streetcar ride away. Each morning we would take the trolley to downtown St. Paul with our mother. Each night, my sister and I would take the rickety transit back home again alone.

The school had four main class rooms, two classes in each. There was a lunchroom in the basement and space for hanging winter coats and boots behind each classroom. Unlike a lot of the public grade schools, St. Louis School had no sports programs, clubs, student organizations or learning opportunities outside of the classroom. When school was out, the playground emptied pretty quickly.

7th Street      (photo credit to Minnesota Historical Society)

Unlike a lot of the schools around our home in Highland Park, St. Louis Grade School was anything but vanilla and main stream. Students came from the surrounding neighborhoods like Irving Park, East Saint Paul, West Saint Paul, and the projects behind the capitol. It was an eclectic, mostly poor, somewhat mixed-race group of students; clearly reflective of their communities of origin.

The teachers were all nuns. They were tough-minded, serious, no bullshit kind of instructors who had the full backing of our parents. We understood that punishment at school was always favored in lieu of a call to our parents. Catholic doctrine had a firm grip on our young lives while in school and often followed us home as well.

The grade school was started in 1873, closed in 1962 and the building razed in 1966. I was a member of the graduating class of 1957. Statistics aside, that would mean that there aren’t a lot of graduates still around. So, of course, the writer in me wondered ‘what ever happened to all those alumni?’

All of this reminiscing about eight years of early childhood education came to a head a couple of months ago. I was staring up at a hot California sun one afternoon and wondering out loud if the school had ever had an all-class reunion of any sort. My wife, always the Alpha, take-charge kind of person, suggested I take the next step and find out for myself. So I messaged the church on their Facebook page to find out. Surprising even myself, I got a pleasant response from Ramona, the church secretary, who said the answer was no. There had never been any kind of class reunion.

So, again, stepping out of my comfort level, I wrote up a notice of inquiry and Ramona put it on the Sunday church bulletin and on their Facebook page. I kind of knew the chances of an outpouring of interest was probably not realistic but thought it was worth the effort.


It’s been almost two weeks now and only two nibbles. Statistically there probably wouldn’t have been a lot of alumni left to see the notice. Past graduates, if still living, would be few and far between. It’s safe to assume that many have passed on, moved elsewhere or are out of the social media mainstream.

That said, it would seem that an important vestige of the history of the ‘Little French Church’ is quickly fading away. St. Louis Catholic Grade School will soon be just a footnote on Catholic education in Saint Paul. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. I lived it and wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

It was a time of growing social, sexual, and political change within the church itself. Old downtown Saint Paul was a skeleton of its former self. Then there were the lives of those young, naïve boys and girls, anxious to escape the oversight of the nuns, and anxious to taste the freedom that high school promised.

Most of us survived that transition and welcomed the kaleidoscope of experiences that the Sixties would to bring to us. That said, it would have been nice, just one more time, to rekindle friendships and share those experiences with my classmates from so long ago.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Seems Like a Hodgepodge

Only recently, after thirteen years of writing, did I made a curious discovery. On the surface and without reflection, it had seemed as if I was just ‘writing to write.’ Never mind that the exercise produced very satisfying results. I would jump from one idea to the next without focus or direction. Or so I thought.

But after pounding out twelve novels, an investment guide, a serialized novella, a children’s book, four screenplays, fourteen plays (four of which have been produced), and over six hundred blogs, I slowly began to recognize a vague yet discernable pattern to this writing madness of mine.

This realization crept into my consciousness a couple of weeks ago as I was knee-deep in leaves and yard waste. Amid deep breaths of my out-of-shape workout, I realized there was inspiration for everything I’ve written thus far. Most of the time, it was neatly hidden beneath events, circumstances and seemingly innocent happenstance. But then I realized that a direct inspiration and results could be found in almost every story I’ve told.

I’ve often mentioned that my first ventures into storytelling began with the writing of two western novels on my trusty old L.C. Smith typewriter. Back in the early Seventies, we were living in Reisterstown, Maryland and I was working at the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting. I decided to try my hand at storytelling one of my favorite topics; the American West.

Fast-forward almost forty years later and ‘Apache Death Wind; the trilogy’ and ‘Apache Blue Eyes’ were re-born out of that first pass at writing.

My second writing marathon was a semi-autobiographical novel set in the mid-Sixties. The novel pretty accurately followed my own storyline, minus time spent in Vietnam and not getting the girl in the end. Otherwise, it had all the same pathos, angst, heartbreak and redemption of your typical ‘coming-of-age’ (sort of) novel.

Fast-forward to the present and I wrote a serialized novella called ‘Agnes, Memories of First Love.’ It was also set in the mid-Sixties and chronicled my first job after returning from Europe and my first steps toward a career in television production and distribution. Oh, and a love affair that never happened…but could have.

Palm Springs has defined our second lifestyle for over twelve years now, not counting the initial eight, when we were first visitors there. In homage to that world-famous Candy Land of hope and illusion, I wanted to write a soap opera centered on some of the real and fictional people who live there. I’ve met a number of the characters it seems to attract and the ‘almost anything goes’ vibe, that is a part of the landscape.  Hence the ‘Debris trilogy’ was born.

My fourth play ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventures’ was also produced in Palm Springs and spoke to the uniqueness of the place. It certainly isn’t Mayberry.

Before ‘Polly,’ I had three plays produced in Minnesota. The first was an offering to a new theatrical troupe called Second Act Players and made up of senior actors. ‘Riot at Sage Corner’ was followed by ‘Club Two Ten’ which was reminiscent of my own home room in high school. ‘The Last Sentinel’ reflected advancing age that many of my friends and I were facing.

Departing from my novel, play, screenplay routine, I thought an easy-to-read reference book on real estate might be interesting to write. My apartment management book was a ‘how-to,’ ‘don’t to this’ reference book on the trials and tribulations of managing multi-unit apartment buildings.

I always wanted to try my hand at writing a mystery novel. My first attempt at writing a suspense thriller was an almost six hundred page novel that took me traveling around the world. A YA (Young Adult) version called ‘Chasing Ophelia’ followed soon after. Someplace in that mix of time and new material, I also managed to write four screenplays.

Recently I revisited the mystery genre with ‘Playground for the Devil’ which incorporated a sassy companion and more sexual references. Maturity on my part, I’m not sure, but it was a fun story to imagine and write.

One of my six new plays, ready to be produced, has gone through an interesting metamorphosis. PTV started out as a straightforward stage play about the transitional period in public television when it evolved from instructional television to public television. That seemed to go nowhere so I added eight new songs and a different approach to my storytelling. When that also seemed to stall out, I happened upon the play ‘Spamalot’ and found a brand new approach that I hope might be the catalyst for the winning format that has eluded me thus far.

Waleed, the skinny hippo was a children’s story I wrote almost fifteen years ago. It finally found a home last winter with a wonderful illustrator out of Bangladesh and a Swahili translator out of Kenya, South Africa. Now two more translations into Hmong and Spanish are in the works.

My newest venture, if I can get it off the ground, is a comic strip based on the real and imagined lives of my five grandchildren (at a younger age). ‘Sweet pea and the Gang’ has all the hallmarks of another fun venture I’m anxious to begin. Like everything else I write, its outcome is never guaranteed and marketing success always a challenge.

But I’m confident that if I can keep mining that vast field of my past memories, images, and what-ifs; I can keep coming up with new writing projects. These last seventy-nine years on the planet have fueled a cauldron of great plots, people, and places to write about.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Sweetpea and the Gang

It began as an idea that had been percolating in my brain for a very long time. Simply stated, it was to capture the innocence and essence of my grandchildren in their early years. Back to a time when simple play and discovery ruled their worlds. I wasn’t sure how I was going to package this storyline but I felt it held great promise. The title came from a moniker Charlotte’s parents had given to the youngest of the group. And it fit her perfectly.

If you go back far enough, Charlotte did look like a ‘Sweetpea’ and they did look like ‘the gang.’

Unfortunately, time passed far too quickly from that initial moment of inspiration and the gang all grew up. The five grandchildren are practically young adults now (four out of five are in their teens). If not quite adults, they are well on their way into their maturing years and young adult-hood. Where the heck did the time go?

Although I missed my first opportunity to capture them ‘in the moment,’ I’ve collected enough comments, statements, antidotes, truisms and incidents that could fill a small graphic novel or the beginnings of a comic strip. For example:

Brennan asks: “Why doesn’t it hurt when you get a haircut?”

Charlotte asks: “Why did they nail Jesus to the cross when they could have used glue?”

Samantha giving her ‘death stare.’

What I haven’t already collected ‘from the mouths of babes,’ I can always make-up. In this case, I have a ready resource in their parents and the kids themselves for past vernacular gems. I’m confident there’s a wealth of material to mine out there.

After completing my first children’s book entitled: Waleed, the Skinny Hippo, I got to thinking about another children’s story that’s been nudging up against Waleed for the longest time. It started out in the form of a comic book then a comic strip and finally a graphic novel. All under the banner of ‘Sweetpea and the Gang.’

Following the gestation and wonderful creation of Waleed, I am beginning the process of trying to find just the right illustrator who can draw cartoon characters that best resemble my grandchildren at a younger age. After that, there’s the storyline, the flow of content, and most importantly, trying to capture the excitement, fun, and silliness that would be at the heart of ‘Sweetpea and the Gang.’

The format keeps switching from comic book format to comic strip to graphic novel. The final form will depend on a variety of things such as marketing opportunities, content presentation and the amount of heavy duty labor involved. Ultimately, it will all depend on the illustrator chosen and his or her ability to create content at a reasonable cost, then acceptable timeframes and the right correlation between my written text and the final illustrations. Not a small undertaking at all. But after Waleed, I’m confident there is an illustrator out there who can do the job.

Now I just have to find him or her and make the connection. Maybe, after all these years, I will be able to share the pure joy of youth in the form of ‘Sweetpea and the gang.’ Here’s hoping.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

When Daddy Came Home

There is a universal truth that you can’t go home again. First coined as a phrase ‘How are you going to keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Pariee?’ It conveyed the changes young service men in World War One experienced once being exposed to this foreign city or living such a life in Paris.

Those changes for servicemen in World War One, World War Two and all the ensuing military conflicts transported primarily young men to another world and life they’d never experienced before. It could also describe similar feelings one experiences upon returning home after a long period of time.

One of the first pieces of advice I got in basic training was to ‘never go home’ during leave. The logical was simple enough. It was simply too painful to leave again after being home for any extended period of time. “Best to leave the past behind,” I was told and pick up again when you’re discharged and back to civilian life.

I didn’t follow that advice after basic training. Expecting a warm welcome at home, I was instead greeted by a note from my Mom saying she was out dancing, my girlfriend had returned to Southern Minnesota for spring break and wasn’t around, my friends were busy and I was stuck at home, alone and forgotten on a Friday night.

In a sad version of teenage angst, I tore off my uniform, put on a pair of tattered jeans, dropped my convertible top and cruised University Avenue from the U of M to the state capitol, wondering where the hell my life was heading. A week later I couldn’t wait to get out of Dodge and head for San Francisco where I was to be stationed.

After eight wonderful months in the ‘country club’ of the Army, I was transferred to Fort Polk, Louisiana. Once again, I returned home and this time was enlisted to drive my girlfriend to the Union Depot where she was going off to a Notre Dame Football Weekend. That was the last time I came home while in the service.

Instead of returning home during subsequent leaves, I enjoyed two weeks exploring Mexico City and Acapulco, holed up weekends in Beaumont, Texas just to get off base. Christmas was spent with a new ‘friend’ in Pittsburgh and most weekends experiencing Washington, D.C. (again) just to get off base.

These thoughts of ‘time lost and never recovered’ came to mind when I read a new book from BWB (Better World Books.) entitled: When Daddy Came Home. It’s a fascinating account of the sometimes bitter sweet experiences of many British soldiers, airmen and sailors returning home from World War Two.

What was now known to be PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) was little understood back then. The Hollywood portrait of servicemen returning to their wives open arms and welcoming children wasn’t always the case. The absence of time spent between the servicemen and their families revealed itself in children who didn’t know their fathers, indiscretion on the part of some wives, a life ‘back home’ that hadn’t stopped for the  war and a need to move on past the horrors of past conflicts. The problem was that many military men and women couldn’t ‘let go’ of their past and ‘just move on.’

Hollywood nailed that experience in a film entitled ‘The Best Years of our Lives.’ It’s one of my all-time favorites. Wikipedia describes it as:

‘The film is about three United States service men re-adjusting to societal changes and civilian life after coming home from World War II. The three men come from different services and different class backgrounds which do not correspond with their class standing.

The film was a critical and commercial success. It won seven Academy Awards.  It was the highest-grossing film in both the United States and United Kingdom since the release of Gone with the Wind and is the sixth most-attended film of all time in the United Kingdom, with over 20 million tickets sold.

In 1989, The Best Years of Our Lives was one of the first 25 films selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".’

I’ve only experienced this phenomena a couple of times. Yet each time, the associated emotions were the same.

Living in Europe was a different experience yet on many levels much the same as being in the service. Before I left I had severed most ties with my life in the Twin Cities. I had finally gotten a college degree but had no real job prospects; no girlfriend or romantic entanglements and most of my friends had either begun their new lives as working stiffs or were heading down the matrimonial aisle. There was, literally, nothing to keep me there anymore. Moving to Europe and living there seemed like a logical next step.

After my hiatus in Europe, I returned to a clean slate, devoid of job prospects, romance, living accommodations and earned income. I knew I had to start all over again but at least I didn’t have the vacuum of lost time hanging over my head.

In the subsequent years, I have left the Twin Cities for extending periods of time on a film shoot in Costa Rica, travels in the Amazon rainforest with my son, a business trip to Ireland, an Asian Rotary trip, and numerous travels through Europe. Each trip meant time away from the home front and usually a different perspective upon my return.

The time we spend in Palm Springs is no different. We’ve been here for almost seven months now. That’s a lot of winter to miss but also meaningful time spent with friends and neighbors. Often the absence of time and presence can erode friendships and acquaintances. I guess that’s part and parcel of being a mobile society.

When we return in May, I plan to reignite my ‘Coffee and Chat’ sessions with old friends. It’ll be interesting to see if that gap of seven months has made a difference. I certainly hope not.